I was in Las Vegas this summer, doing a few poker tells presentations. Jonathan Little, me, and hypnotherapist Elliot Roe were working together doing full-day seminars. (You can read more here about my poker tells part of the presentation.) This blog is about me doing a 1.5-hour hypnotherapy session with Roe.
This summer was my first time meeting Elliot, although I’d known him virtually on Twitter and TwoPlusTwo for a few years. I knew he was a hypnotherapist who lived in Vegas and who had worked with a lot of poker players and martial artists/ultimate fighters (click here for his website.)
I have to admit I was skeptical of working with Elliot at first (both doing the seminars with him or receiving hypnotherapy). It’s not that I am critical of hypnotherapy in general; I know that it’s a practice with a lot of validity to back it up. (I once saw a hypnotherapist for some emotional/anxiety problems I had in college.) My skepticism comes mainly from the fact that many people involved in the more “alternative” areas of psychological therapy (including hypnotherapy, NLP, and transformational/experiential seminars) have struck me as wishy-washy at best and downright shady at worst.
On meeting up with Elliot for a beer in Vegas, my immediate impressions were that he was a down-to-earth, gentle guy. My initial skepticism was erased not long after meeting him. This has been borne out from listening to him talk about his work in the seminar and when I and my wife both went to him for hypnotherapy sessions.
First, Elliot doesn’t pretend that hypnotherapy is some magical state where fantastical things happen. He doesn’t talk like someone who is some sort of magician or psychic or holder of special powers. He stresses the normalcy of the hypnotic state. It varies for everyone, but the main traits are that when you’re in a hypnotherapy session, you’re more intently focused on your feelings and emotions, and you are using visualization techniques. Both of these aspects make the hypnotherapy session different from your average, day-to-day life.
Describing the normalcy of a hypnotherapy session beforehand, Elliot also frames your expectations and makes it more likely that you’ll have a positive experience and get more out of the hypnotherapy session.
For one thing, he emphasizes that it’s normal to still be “in your head” when doing hypnotherapy. You don’t enter some completely unusual state. You still have your mental faculties. You shouldn’t get frustrated if you are still having thoughts like “I don’t want to talk about that with him” or “I’m not sure this is working.” By framing the normalcy of these responses, Elliot prevents these kinds of thoughts from being major distractions. For example, during my session with him, I was continually having such thoughts, because I’m a naturally skeptical person when it comes to such things and because I think my “hypnotizability” is very low. But having Elliot frame those responses as normal kept me from being too offput and distracted by them. I was free to become relaxed despite these thoughts.
Basically, by talking about the process of hypnotherapy beforehand, Elliot lessens “performance anxiety” or fear of “failing.” If you know that you’re capable of having a wide range of experiences, some more or less “trancey” than others, it lessens your anxiety or fear that you may be having a suboptimal experience. By relaxing you in this way, it heightens your chance of having a good experience.
Elliot also talks about how crying during the hypnotherapy session is completely normal and that almost all of his clients cry during-session. I had experienced this with just about all psych therapists/counselors I’ve ever seen, so wasn’t surprised to hear that. And it was true; I cried, as did my wife. This is quite normal when you consider that you are, by definition, usually revisiting the most emotionally difficult situations and feelings.
My session with Elliot focused on anxiety/depression, which I’ve had most of my life. (Long story short: ever since entering high school, I’d known I had very high levels of anxiety. This culminated in me dropping out of my first college after two years due to anxiety/panic-attack issues.) Elliot asked if I wanted to focus on that generally or on the poker aspects of that, because I admitted that anxiety issues have kept me from doing my best in poker. We decided to focus mainly on the general anxiety with a little bit at the end about how it applies to poker. So my session consisted of revisiting tough memories involving anxiety and Elliot “re-framing” how I viewed these memories.
Apparently, a lot of the hypnotherapy philosophy (or at least what I gathered from how Elliot approached it) is that the lasting psychic damage to you from your experiences mainly comes from the way your brain has processed the past and has stored it. (This is similar to NLP, actually, which puts a lot of emphasis on the power of the language we use to describe events.) For example, if you have very negative associations with a certain situation, then you are more likely to continue having negative associations for that “trigger.” But if you can “reframe” your experience of that event, and put it in a positive (or at least neutral frame), then you will be better served psychologically and functionally. I think there’s a limit to how useful this can be (especially when it comes to serious mental illnesses or extreme trauma), but I think for the lighter side of emotional disturbance, it does have a lot of logic and validity. At the very least, if you have some issues, I think it’s worth giving it a try.
So, for example, for me specifically, there was an event when I was young that involved me going to a totally new high school where I didn’t know anyone. I talked to some girl I didn’t know, but who knew someone I knew, and I had a mini panic-attack: sweating, heart racing, just feeling horrible, and suddenly having the “realization” that there was something seriously wrong with me as a social animal.
Like a vicious circle, those kinds of thoughts got worse the rest of that day and continued to impact me for years. I got extremely socially anxious in certain situations. Despite the logic of knowing that what I was experiencing was also experienced by other people, and that I was perhaps just wired a bit more sensitively for some things, I occasionally just plain hated myself or felt disgust for myself. It’s tough when things that seem so easy to other people, like socializing, seem immensely hard for no apparent reason that you can figure out.
Anyway, in Elliot’s session, the focus was on revisiting some of these tougher moments to try to reframe my memory and opinion about what had happened. I lay down with my eyes closed and listened to Elliot’s calm, soft voice; these elements all help the visualization/imagination process. So instead of having very negative, visceral responses to visualizing and reliving those moments, Elliot asked questions that were aimed at having me rethink why these moments were a negative reflection on who I was. Things like: “Isn’t it normal for a young man at a new school, where he didn’t know anyone, to feel anxiety when talking to a girl, who you perhaps thought was attractive?” Or “What would the adult Zach say to that anxious, young boy now?”
I already knew intellectually that I shouldn’t “beat myself up” for my past emotional problems. But it’s an entirely more difficult thing to actually “feel” that sentiment. Trying to go back and revisit and put yourself in that moment, to “reframe” the emotions associated with that memory to be more neutral or positive, seems like a logical and beneficial thing to do. I only saw Elliot for one session, so I wasn’t expecting much, but I can definitely see the power of revisiting those memories and re-associating them in further sessions, until perhaps you have rewired the negative emotions and lessened their impact.
Rapport, they say (and Elliot agreed) plays a strong role in making these kinds of therapies work. I liked Elliot and felt like he was trustworthy, humble, and honorable. If I hadn’t felt that way, and instead felt he was dishonest or exaggerating his claims, it would preclude me getting anything useful out of doing a session with him.
In one moment during the session I had a realization how important the client-practitioner relationship was. During the end of the session, Elliot had me imagine walking near a lake, and that my stresses and troubles were rocks in a backpack I was carrying. He had me visualize throwing the rocks/troubles into the water one at a time, until I was completely light and carefree.
As he gave me the instructions, I really wanted to become completely relaxed. And this wasn’t just for my sake; it was actually mainly for Elliot’s sake. I didn’t want to disappoint him. Or rather, probably more precisely, I didn’t want to harm my and his relationship by having to pretend to feel more relaxed. Not that I would necessarily have to pretend but I’d probably end up doing it, either in the moment or in my talking about the session later with him. So I wanted it to really work so that I could say that it worked and have had a good session with him.
And I think these considerations were a main factor in it actually working. As he talked about releasing these tensions/rocks, I did feel myself becoming completely relaxed. And that was the most surprising and interesting part of the session for me. It’s surprising mainly because I’m someone who has always found it almost impossible to relax and here I was becoming completely relaxed basically “on-command,” in some kind of reaction to Elliot’s command and my own desire to make it happen. However it happened, my stress did lift, and this made me see the potential in this kind of therapy. Because if you can make that happen in a therapeutic setting, then it’s possible to gain greater control of your emotions in general, out in the wider world.
Before the rocks-in-backpack conclusion, we also spent some time talking about anxiety in poker. Elliot had me imagine myself at my most confident and focused and then walked me through how feeling that way all the time would improve my mental well-being and results. Again, this was just one fairly short session but I could see the potential to multiple sessions. (After this session, I have felt more confident and less anxious when playing, but it is admittedly hard to separate this result from other factors, including successfully putting on my poker tells presentations in Vegas, which made me feel more confident about public speaking and seems to have lessened my self-awareness in general.)
My wife also did a session with Elliot. She was also admittedly skeptical but she really enjoyed it. She came out of the session talking about how she’d revisited and reframed some moments in her childhood that she had previously only thought of as “bad” but, after the session, had a better insight into how those moments had more complexity and ambiguity than she used to think. In other words, the moments weren’t necessarily “bad” but were only bad because she had previously categorized them as bad.
My wife and I also appreciated the more active role Elliot (and presumably other hypnotherapists) take in guiding you to those moments and trying to reframe them in a practical way. This is in contrast to a lot of the more mainstream psychological counseling that tends to be more hands-off, non-involved, and non-confrontational. For example, my wife and I had both seen counselors in the past whose main way of interacting was in the clichéd manner of “Why do you think that?” or “How did that make you feel?” These might be safer, neutral approaches that have more mainstream, academic approval, but it does often feel with such approaches that nothing is being accomplished. This is what I mean by saying that hypnotherapy’s more active guiding/pushing process does seem theoretically a reason why it would have more of a practical effect.
I’d recommend Elliot to any poker players or other competitive people in the Vegas area who was interested in tackling mental game issues. He also offers Skype sessions for people anywhere in the world. He seems actively dedicated to serving as a mental game practitioner for poker players and fighters and he presumably is familiar with a lot of the issues that these competitors encounter.